Desiree Edwards greets customers at Watts Coffee House, which she has owned… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I spent this past week at a little-known gem down in South L.A.
Its past is long and winding. After a police stop turned violent, sparking riots that tore through Watts in 1965, a group of churches transformed an old furniture store on a fire-charred street. They created the Watts Happening Coffee House, and amid an explosion of pride and creativity that rooted in this corner of the city during the '60s, it became a smoke-filled community hub.
"It's one of the only decent things we have in Watts," a young man is quoted telling city officials in a Times' story published in 1966.
Photos: The Watts Coffee House
Today, an updated version of Watts Happening is still in the neighborhood, on the same street, on a different corner. You'll miss it if you're not careful. It's tucked behind an iron fence, stuck inside a worn community center, set behind a charter school. It's simply the Watts Coffee House now.
Don't let that fool you. Coffee isn't king here. This is actually a bustling soul food joint. But as good and filling as the food is, as much as the wafting odor of grilled onions and brisket entice, it's not just another place to eat.
"It's the only real, bona fide sit-down restaurant in Watts," says Elvonzo Cromwell, echoing a sentiment heard repeatedly during my recent, gut-expanding visits. Cromwell is 34 and grew up in the nearby Jordan Downs projects. He clearly remembers being a teenager, walking into the coffeehouse for the first time. "It was fresh air. The first time in my life I saw class, real class, right here where I live."
Without prompting, without knowing it, he then echoed the young man we quoted in 1966: "It's one of the best parts of Watts. One of the only places here where people can just relax and hang."
The coffeehouse is a world removed from the hardness that has calcified much of Watts. Small and intimate, it has high ceilings, wood beams and a wide patio. At the entrance is a life-sized cutout of President Obama. It feels like every funky inch of the place is covered with an old African American-themed movie poster, a 40-year-old album cover featuring a jazz legend, or a storefront sign that once adorned a small South L.A. business.
"It's a restaurant, yeah, it's also a museum," Desiree Edwards tells me. She's the chef, owner and manager. She leads a crew of six in a kitchen so hot that after I walked through, I felt like I'd just emerged from the fryer. "Everyone comes in and sees something they relate to here," she says. "It helps them feel comfortable. They say, 'Oh, I remember that Bill Cosby album, I remember him coming to this community center.' Or 'Oh, Redd Foxx, the comedian, he used to come to Watts, too.' It's nostalgic attachment. We honor the grandparents and the greatgrands … we cook the food they cooked."
Edwards, 50, grew up by USC, the daughter of local barbershop owners. Her father and stepfather taught her how to grill steak and roast turkeys, and from the time she was a kid she was enthralled by making food — a dusty Suzy Homemaker oven she got as a little girl sits atop a ledge in her restaurant.
After college, Edwards ended up in a series of corporate jobs, mostly working for banks and insurance companies. Seeking more meaning from work she began to cater, and word of her culinary skill spread through South L.A. By the mid-'90s, Watts Happening had been closed for nearly three decades, but the locals still longed for it. When a restaurant closed inside the community center, then sat fallow for years, Edwards was offered the space rent free — so long as she'd bring back the coffeehouse vibe.
"I didn't take a single loan," says Edwards. "I ran on faith and prayer."
Nothing has been easy. Edwards says she struggles to survive just about every month. Her business is in a neighborhood as depressed as any in California, but she does what she can to make things better.
She'll hire staff who've had their share of trouble. Some are ex-cons. Some are recovering addicts. Her menu — which does indeed feature a few heart-healthy items, like the Veggie Saute — is cooked to order and priced so people in Watts can afford it. You can get a burger and a burrito for less than five bucks. One breakfast special consists of a fried chicken wing, a salmon croquette, a pork chop, a hot link, four eggs, smothered potatoes and grits. It's called the "On the 1 Gangsta Breakfast," a nod to a significant part of her customer base.
"I don't turn back anyone in this place, so long as they act right," Edwards says as she looks out at the restaurant.